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Death and Glory

Engrossing Documentary Captures The Heart and Soul of a Self-Styled Punk Warlord

Alex Fine

By Neil Ferguson | Posted 7/16/2008

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

Director: Julien Temple

Available on DVD from Legacy Recordings July 8

To say that people loved the late, lamented Joe Strummer is an understatement of truly epic proportions: He was adored and worshipped. To his legions of acolytes, "Chairman Joe" was Jesus, Jumpin' Jack Flash, and JFK, all rolled into one hopelessly romantic whole. He was a latter day Che Guevara with a battered Telecaster, Woody Guthrie cranked up on Dexedrine, a shaman and avatar to suburban brats and aging, beer-bellied punks alike. And, lest it be forgotten, he could be--as Julien Temple's fantastic The Future Is Unwritten shows--a Machiavellian manipulator, a coward hellbent on avoiding confrontation, prone to bouts of boozy self-pity, and not adverse to stealing your girlfriend.

He was, in short, no latter-day saint. For a rock 'n' roll icon, he was only too human, and all the better for it. It's precisely this humanity that makes Temple's documentary such engrossing viewing. A friend and fellow survivor of punk's glory days, Temple gets straight to the heart of the matter, the endless conflict and contradictions that made Strummer such a flawed yet fascinating character.

Take the bravura opening scenes--a closeup of a young Strummer, his mouth like a bomb site and with attitude to spare, in the studio laying down the vocal track for the Clash's "White Riot," sneering and snarling, punker than punk. Cut to a grainy home-movie clip of an impossibly young and fresh-faced Strummer looking every inch the perfect, pukka English public schoolboy (which he was--and in England, "public" schools are the equivalent of traditional, posh American private schools), before the camera cuts back in on punk-era Joe, the band kicking in behind him sounding for all the world like a fleet of fire engines screaming through full-scale urban insurrection. It is stirring stuff, and pretty much encapsulates one of the main sources of tension that ran throughout his life: that of the clean-scrubbed youngster named John Mellor, son of an Anglo-Indian diplomat, and that of the artifice of his Joe Strummer character. As Clash drummer Topper Headon (one of a bewildering array of talking heads throughout the movie) puts it, "That whole public schoolboy and punk hero thing really fucked him up."

The Future Is Unwritten is ambitious and intelligent, miles removed from the bog-standard VH1-style rock doc. It centers on reminiscing friends, family, and colleagues gathered 'round campfires across the globe (in his later years, Strummer became a regular at the Glastonbury Festival, rediscovered his inner hippie, and reveled in the communality of weed- and wine-fueled campfire sessions) interspersed with live clips and animation. There's a collagelike feel to the documentary--Strummer's staid English childhood is conjured up via scenes from 1984 and the animated Animal Farm, while his teenage political awakening is set to the bloody climax of Lindsay Anderson's If . . . . soundtracked by the MC5 careening through "Kick Out the Jams." Strummer himself offers narration from beyond the grave through snippets of his BBC World Service radio sessions, titled, appropriately enough, "London Calling."

Those in search of a riot of Clash clips might feel vaguely shortchanged, as Future concentrates as much on his early days (from public schoolboy to art-school dropout to bequiffed pub rocker) and the latter wilderness years where he drifted, confidence shattered by the Clash's breakdown, disillusioned by fame, before he learned to live with himself--and his reputation--and finally growing up, relaxing, and enjoying making music again with the Mescaleros. Besides, if it's solely the Clash you're after, then stick to Don Letts' definitive 2000 The Clash: Westway to the World.

If there are any real negative points--and ultimately they're minor ones--it's that at no point are any of the countless talking heads identified. Temple may well be pointing out that this is democracy in action, that each contributor is as important and valid as the next, but unless you're a die-hard Clash fiend, you're almost definitely going to be wondering just who in God's name half these people are (and why Johnny Depp was inexplicably allowed to talk utter bollocks dressed in full-on Jack Sparrow makeup). Still, on the plus side, it does reconfirm suspicions that U2's Bono is as pompous a wanker as ever.

Minor gripes aside, they detract little from what's otherwise a genuinely touching, heartfelt, and deeply absorbing tribute to a complex folk hero who gave himself completely to his followers, set ludicrously high standards and ideals for himself and others, and never, ever, stopped trying. Ultimately, The Future Is Unwritten is a vibrant and priceless addition to the canon surrounding St. Joe.

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